SW20: The Good Life … or Bleak Suburbia

I have to confess I have struggled a little with SW20. It is a bit lacking in history. It was just farm land here until the 1870s when development took off. And – dare I say it -SW20 does seem a bit dull on the surface at least.

I have however discovered two people with a connection to SW20 who neatly sum up how people react to this kind of suburban area. The actor Richard Briers, who is forever associated with playing typical, and not so typical, suburban husbands was born and spent his early years in Raynes Park, so he could be said to reflect the “Good Life” aspects. On the other hand there is the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, who lived in SW20 when she first moved to London in the 1950s with her young family. She hated it, calling SW20 “bleak suburbia”. She could not wait to escape, and she did – eventually.

We start our walk at the Post Office which is at 1a Amity Grove, just off Coombe Lane in the centre of Raynes Park. Go to the end of Amity Grove and turn left. Across the road is our first stop (and the reason why the area built up in the first place).

Stop 1: Raynes Park Station

The railway was built through the area in 1838 but there was no station here until October 1871. The name Raynes Park was originally applied to the area south of the railway line where the local landowner, Richard Garth, planned to develop a new garden suburb similar to that being developed by John Innes at Merton Park. The Rayne family had been previous landowners of the farmland on which Garth intended to build. It did not quite get developed as a coherent “garden suburb” but it did get developed, and we shall visit the roads on the south side of the station shortly.

Like Merton Park, there is no actual park called Raynes Park. It is simply a device to make the area sound nice and leafy. I think John Innes also had this idea when he started to develop nearby Merton Park in 1870. He even persuaded the railway company to change the local station name in 1887 from Lower Merton to Merton Park, as it sounded better. And the same “deception” occurs further down the line at Motspur Park and Worcester Park, neither of which seem to have an actual park of that name.

The station at Raynes Park is unusual. The fast tracks run through with no platforms and but there are two pairs of platforms for the local trains as the station stands at a junction – where the line to Epsom and Chessington peels off the main line out of Waterloo. The Southern reconstructed this in the 1930s as a grade separated junction so the trains from Epsom and Chessington could pass under the main line rather than cross on the level. And I guess this meant the up and down platforms could not be opposite each other.

A distinctive feature of the station is the long footbridge set at an angle over the 4 tracks of the main line. This really stands out as the main line is already on quite a high embankment. However you do wonder what the point is. There is a subway entrance to each set of platforms and so you could interchange by going down to street level. And there cannot be many people who want to interchange between the up platforms and the down ones, so why go to the expense of building – and maintaining – this foot bridge.

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Continue along Coombe Lane, crossing Lambton Road and then taking a left into Lambton Road. Follow this road round to the right where it becomes Worple Road.

Stop 2: Pepys Court

Just along from the corner is our next stop, Pepys Court.

This block of flats was the childhood home of the actor Richard Briers who died in February 2013. Given all the suburban characters he played I associate him with one of the 1930s semis in a street that all looks the same. But he clearly came from more humble beginnings. One of his best known characters was in the sitcom “The Good Life” where he and his wife played by Felicity Kendal gave up all the trappings of modern life to become self sufficient in a 1930s semi. Although filmed in Northwood it was actually set down the road in Surbiton – or should I say Suburbiton.

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Interestingly there is no connection to Samuel Pepys. The Pepys remembered here and in the adjoining Pepys Road is a very distant relative of the famous diarist. He is Charles Pepys, 1st Earl of Cottenham who lived locally until his death in 1851 (Hence also nearby is Cottenham Park Road, Cottenham Drive and an actual park called Cottenham Park – Cottenham is a place in Cambridgeshire). Charles Pepys was a lawyer and senior politian and had two spells as Lord Chancellor in the late 1830s and late 1840s.

Now look over the road.

Stop 3: Methodist Church and Lantern Arts Centre

There is a pair of large red brick Byzantine style buildings. The one on the right is a functioning Methodist church. The building on the left looks like it was built as an assembly room or church hall. All this is probably rather too big for the current congregation but the church hall has at least found a purpose, as the Lantern Arts Centre.

It has been going almost 20 years according to the signs and has no doubt been home to myriad am-dram productions. Their aim is to involve members of the local community in their productions and they aim for creativity with a christian ethos at its heart. I see they are doing Aladdin as their panto this year  – I guess they were not best pleased to discover that the big local commercial theatre (New Wimbledon Theatre) is doing the same story this year. But I suppose it does not really matter as you do not exactly go for the story!

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Now continue along Worple Road and follow the one way system right (into Pepys Road)

Stop 4: Site of Rialto Cinema, 3 Pepys Road

Just around the corner on the right is St George’s House – one of those uninspiring 1980s suburban office blocks. This was the site of Raynes Park’s one and only cinema.

Raynes Park never had a grand super cinema but it did have just one modest little picture house dating from the silent era. Built in 1921 and originally called the Raynes Park Cinema, it was refronted in 1933. It then re-opened as the Rialto Cinema and kept this name until it closed on 23 September 1978. From what I can find out it was never part of a big chain and stayed independent until the end.

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The building stood empty and unused for several years, and was finally demolished in the mid-1980s. Not sure why the new building got called St George’s House. It is a bit of a shame that the Rialto name was not used for the building on this site.

Go under the railway bridge and ahead you will see the library and to the left is Kingston Road. The roads going off the main road to the right form our next “stop”

Stop 5: The Apostles

Estate agents always have to find a tag for an area if it does not have one already and sometimes even if it does. This chunk of Raynes Park is known as the Apostles. Not because of any religious connection or because the roads have saints names – They do not (unless Sydney and Edna count which I don’t think they do). 

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No, nothing as obvious as that. The area gets its estate agent name because there are twelve parallel streets off of Kingston Road running towards, but not actually going into, Bushey Road. (And wouldn’t it have been great if Edna O’Brien had lived in Edna Road but sadly she did not)

This area was the first part of Raynes Park to be fully developed once the station had opened in 1871.

Just as an aside, isn’t it rather fitting that at the corner of one of the Apostles streets is the Kingston area office of the Church of England’s Southwark diocese.

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Now it is a bit of a trek to our next stop. You can walk all the way down Kingston Road following the bend round to the right and the turning left at the traffic lights (into what continues to be Kingston Road). Go under the railway bridge and our next stop is on the left. Alternatively you can hop on a 152 or 163 bus from outside Raynes Park station on Approach Road for a couple of stops to Wimbledon Chase station.

Stop 6: Wimbledon Chase Station

This sad looking building dates from 1929 and was one of a number of new stations which the Southern Railway built between the wars. The story of how this station (and the line it is on) came to be built by the Southern Railway is down to the rivalry between train companies.

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This station was only built by the Southern Railway because of a compromise between them and Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL) who in the 1920s owned most of the tube. UERL needed more traffic on their lines and wanted to extend their City and South London Railway (C&SLR) from Clapham Common to Sutton and their District Railway from Wimbledon to Sutton. The two would join just near a little village called Morden. Needless to say the Southern with their virtual monopoly of train services in south London objected.

UERL said it had to extend the C &SLR at least as far as Morden because that was the first place the line could get to the surface where a depot could be built. Southern could see this would not impact too much on their traffic as it would largely steal from the London County Council tramway which paralleled most of that route. So a deal was struck. UERL could build as far as a station originally to be called Morden North and get their depot. Southern would build the line from Wimbledon to Sutton on the planned alignment but the two would not connect.

UERL opened their line first in 1926 and they had the last laugh. They included a bus turn round at Morden which allowed the area around the station to be served by feeder bus routes, as indeed it is today. The Underground route was much more attractive and gave a faster route direct into the city and west end. So the Wimbledon – Sutton line never really took off and even now only gets a train every half hour.

By the way, next time you look at a map of this area, see how you have to go through Morden station to get to the Underground depot and then if you carry on, you are close by Morden South station on the Wimbledon – Sutton line. This is just about where the junction of the two lines would have been. And of course because the Underground only built one station at Morden, they called it simply Morden although it was nowhere near the old village centre which was actually south of Morden South station.

Continue along Kingston Road and after the Nelson Hospital site (currently under reconstruction – and in SW19 so that is why it is not covered!) turn right down Watery Lane. Keep going down Watery Lane as it curves to the right.

Stop 7: Rutlish School

Just beyond Manor Gardens on the right is our next stop – Rutlish School is on our left.

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We saw the tomb of William Rutlish in nearly St Mary’s Churchyard on our SW19 walk. He was embroiderer to King Charles II. He died in 1687 and left £400 for a school for the education of poor children of the local parish (around £61,000 in today’s money according to Wikipedia). By the 1890s the charity had accumulated a considerable excess of funds. John Innes (of whom we have also already heard) was chairman of the board of trustees and was instrumental in using some of the excess to establish a school. This was in Rutlish Road, SW19 – next to Merton Park station.

The school moved to its present site in 1957. This had been the location of the John Innes Horticultural Institution which itself had been set up under the terms of John Innes’ will in and around his old house, known as the Manor House. This building still stands as part of the school and has a blue plaque – I think this is probably the only blue plaque in the whole of SW20!

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Now it may not have turned out like this. John Innes’ will specified that his bequest should be used for either a school of horticulture that would provide “technical instruction in the principles of the science and art of horticulture and the application thereof to the industry or employment of gardening”, or a Public museum for the collection of paintings and other works of art. The trustees responsible for the money opted for the former and in 1910 the John Innes Horticultural Institution opened here. It moved to Norfolk in 1945 and of course it is this institution which created the famous John Innes compost mixes long after he died – John Innes may have been somewhat bemused that his name is generally associated with compost rather than as a philanthropist or property developer. There are also lots of varieties of fruit tree which have the name Merton because they were developed by the John Innes Horticutural Institution.

Useless fact: probably the most famous old boy of Rutlish School is Sir John Major who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997.

Now continue down Watery Lane to the end and you will see a little pathway round to Manor Road go down this to the end and turn left into Cannon Hill Lane

Stop 8: Cannon Hill Lane

Cannon Hill Lane meanders from Kingston Road to Grand Drive and it s somewhere on this road, that Edna O’Brien lived out her miserable years in “bleak suburbia”.

I do not know exactly where she lived but in a documentary on her a couple of months back I think it showed the bit of Cannon Hill Lane by the Common, which is beyond Martin Way.

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Just a by the by – according to Merton Council, Cannon Hill Common is not and never has been a common. It did not exist as a public open space until 1925 when the Merton and Morden Urban District Council purchased part of an estate around Cannon Hill House – which was built in the 1760s and demolished between the wars. 

As we have no idea where exactly to go on Cannon Hill Lane, I suggest you just go as far as the roundabout with Martin Way.

Stop 9: Joseph Hood Recreation Ground

When Cannon Hill Lane meets Martin Way at the roundabout, go right into Martin Way. A little way along on the left is the entrance to Joseph Hood Recreation Ground

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Now I am sure that most locals do not know who Joseph Hood was and why this recreation ground is named after him.

He was a local bigwig. Originally from Leicestershire, he was a solicitor, who worked on the creation of British American Tobacco Company Ltd and became one of its deputy Chairman. He was MP for Wimbledon from 1918 to 1924. He and his wife were granted the freedom of the borough of Wimbledon in 1924. In 1930 he was elected mayor of Wimbledon, an office he held until his death in January 1931.  Hood was known as a generous benefactor to the area he represented in parliament. He donated a recreation ground to Merton and Morden Urban District Council and following his death this was renamed Sir Joseph Hood Memorial Playing Fields. But this is not where we are standing. The Sir Joseph Hood Memorial Playing Fields are in Motspur Park. I cannot seem to find out why the recreation ground off Martin Way also has his name (but not as a memorial!) or why there are two recreation grounds with such similar names within a couple of miles of each other.

There is also a local primary school called Joseph Hood, just off Martin Way but again I cannot seem to find out why this particular school bears his name.

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Now return along Martin Way to the roundabout.

Stop 10: St James Church

Just past the roundabout on Martin Way on the left is our final stop – St James church

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St James Church dates from 1957. It had been planned in the 1930s when the housing in the area was developed. The church hall dates from 1936 but war intervened before the church could be built.

The church hall is very typically of that period and had a role in a recent film called “Run for your Wife” – the Ray Cooney farce. This film had vast numbers of well known faces popping up in tiny cameo roles and the scene shot in St James’ church hall included Maureen Lipman and June Whitfield.

The film was however not exactly a great success. When released in February 2013, it had the dubious distinction of taking just £747 in the first weekend. Richard Briers also appeared in this film but not at St James. I had thought this was his last movie but apparently not. The last part he played in a film was in the equally obscure “Cockneys vs Zombies”. Oh dear, he did not exactly go out with a bang!

Although the church looks quite plain on the outside, it has a little gem on the inside. It has a mural by the German jewish artist, Hans Feibusch. He fled Germany in the 1930s and after the war he had a number of commissions to paint church murals. Others in London can be found in St John’s Waterloo and St Alban’s Holborn.

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The St James’ mural is a triptych of the resurrection – all in soft pastel tones to go with the very pale green interior of the Church. And yet it is very powerful.

Sadly this is another Church that is rarely open. Even if the door is open you can only go as far as the side chapel and not into the main church.

So this brings us to the end of the SW20 walk. It has some interest but not as much as most of the other SW postcodes. For some this area represents a safe peaceful area for others it is too quiet or too soulless, or both. You pays your money; you takes your choice.

For onward travel there are buses outside the church to Morden (164 or 413) or across the road to Wimbledon (164)

And this also is the final SW postcode, so that means we are one sixth of the way through the 120 London postcodes. After Christmas, we go west, starting rather unoriginally with W1.

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12 thoughts on “SW20: The Good Life … or Bleak Suburbia

  1. When this popped up on Facebook immediately thought of my good friends Dulcie and Tim as their first house when first married was in Edna Road. They have moved to a different road in SW20 now and don’t think they would ever move away as there is such easy access to London and Wimbledon.

  2. I lived in raynes park for 20 years ❤️ it after being working 8 hours in London.the return to home 🏡 was like heaven ,miss it

  3. Lived in SW20 with husband and 2 daughters from 1982 to 20I2 in Durham Rd and Worple Rd. It was great for me commuting to Waterloo for 7 years until I got a new job at Joseph Hood First School. I know the area well as my cousins,aunts &uncles lived there when I was a child inRichmond Rd and Worple Rd. Went to the Rialto often . Trolley buses went down Worple Rd and I liked to see the sparks and also the excitement when the aerials came off the wires!! p.s. opposite the flats where Richard Briers lived, to the side of the church is a fab Indian restaurant,Sai. Excellent food… equally as good as Tooting or Southall

  4. I was born in Prince Georges Avenue no 72 in the 1940s my dad Sam Senior run a barbers shop on Kingston Road, my mum worked occasionally in Rialto Cinema and also for a shop called Haydees 596 Kingston road I remember the old camp situation on king georges playing fields, and people lived there until mid 50s, then we used to play in the air raid bunkers, but then they disappeared to, I have many appy memories of the area, my favourite pastime was going to the Merton Park Film Studios and following them around the area shooting the films for Edgar Ludgarston, and hoping id be seen in the background when it was shown at the Rialto. I also used to climb the circular meatal staircase on the outside of the cinema to peep in to the projection room watching the men at work, needless to say I ended up running my own commercial cinemas,,,,,,,aaaaagh happy memories of SW20 does anyones remember a guy called Bernard he lived at no 70 and was a paraplegic and alsways sat outside on A SUNNY DAY AND all us kids would stop and give him time, knowing how lucky we were, My nan lived at 34 prince georges avenue, and I went to Burshey County mixed school up near carters seeds, long gone, I also liked the Odeon Cinema sat mornings very good show, MR Luca was manager or to us kids Lucozade,
    nay questions of the era please ask me,

  5. I recently had the dubious honour of moving to SW20 and was delighted to stumble upon your guide. The walk will be followed shortly! Also fascinated to have discovered that I am a distant relative of Joseph Hood – I think he was my father’s great uncle or something like that. (Dad was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, in the 1930s.) However, the family wealth is long gone, unfortunately…
    One minor point – I believe The Good Life, though set in Surbiton, was actually filmed in Northwood, North London. Best wishes and many thanks for your insight into my bit of “bleak suburbia”.

    • Thanks for your comments. How interesting you should end up in SW20 given your connection with Joseph Hood. Glad you liked the SW20 post and hope it helps with your exploration of the area. And yes you are right about The Good Life – set in Surbiton but filmed in Northwood.

  6. Well done for all the research you must have done, but why did you completely ignore half the postcode? The northern half includes all the posh bits, Copse Hill, Drax Avenue, etc. There is lots of history here. The Kingston by-pass (partly within the postcode) was the first dual carriageway in the country and opened up this bit of Surrey for development. Copse Hill is an ancient track over the common. Drax, Barham, Hood and Preston roads were all named after famous admirals. Atkinson Morley hospital in Copse Hill was the TB isolation hospital for St George’s in London. And what about Carters Seeds which we all remember seeing as we drove up the A3? It’s now a development with all the roads named after gardens (Bodnant, Hidcote, etc.) And what about British Salmson which manufactured cars before the war and then turned production over to aircraft engines to support the war effort?
    I could go on and on but I think I have made my point.

    • My aim is not to do a comprehensive guide for each postcode, but to design a walk which could actually be done in the real world. This will always limit what it is possible to cover. Have a lok at my SW19 and you will see it completely ignores Wimbledon town, village and common!

  7. Very good, I lived here for 23 years and then moved to SE9 looking forward to what you think of that, if you think SW20 was bleak suburbia.

    I saw the last showing at the Rialto, can ‘t recall the film but it was about giants ants – rubbish. I was there with about 15 other people. The only time I saw it full was for,the Sound of Music.

    It was a great cinema nice and locally when I was a kid.

    Played football at Rutlish School and scored two own goals in a 9 – 1 defeat.

    • Thanks for the comments and thanks also for following. I am sure there will plenty of other London postcodes that will challenge for the title of “Bleak Suburbia”. But SE9 at least has the wonderful Eltham Palace!

  8. Very well done once again ! Indeed the last SW postcode and the last two SW18/19 were very good too! Thanks for taking all the trouble to post all of this good work. A great Christmas and New Year to you and all!

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